The key thing I have learned about clicker training is that you have to break a task down into steps. Teach the steps in order, combining them as you go. A good example of this was when I taught Joella to open the refrigerator door. Sometimes my hand just doesn’t have the grip to pull on the handle.
The steps to teaching this were broken down into: touch it, close it, take it, pull it, open it. ‘Touch it’ is a good task to teach. It can work on so many things. Buttons for elevators, buttons for automatic doors, pushing closed a drawer or door are just a few of them.
Except for the clicker itself (a little box with a piece of metal that ‘clicks’ when you push on it), everything we used I found around the house. First I took a short piece of a bamboo stick. The professionals call these sticks (made of all sorts of material) as a ‘target’ stick. Then I duct taped a yellow Nestle’s Quik lid to one end. I held the stick right up against the lid and put it close to Joella’s nose. Then I said ‘touch it’. Of course, with the lid being so close, she couldn’t help but touch her nose to it to sniff it. As soon as that lid made contact, click and treat as if she had won the lottery. If your dog doesn’t go toward the lid, bring the lid to her. As soon as you touch it to her nose, act as if she had done it instead.
As she connected the ‘touch it’ to touching the lid, I moved my hand further down the stick and extended it out beyond Joella’s eyesight since she was looking at me. She had to make an effort to touch it now. Once that was established, I moved it further away so she’d have to get up out of her sit to touch it. Then I raised it higher, went lower, went behind me, etc., making her touch it wherever it was.
Next I put the lid on an easy sliding drawer in the kitchen. I had her touch it over and over. Then I pulled the drawer open a bit, just so it was balanced open. I had her touch it again until finally the drawer slid closed. She won that lottery again. Then I waited to click until she had touched it hard enough that it closed. The command now became ‘close it’. While ‘close it’ was not what I was working toward, she now had cause and effect. Now the touching was more than just grazing the lid with her nose.
In other practice sessions, I moved that lid all over the house. Whenever I pointed to it and said touch it, she did. I next took a smaller lid and did the same thing. I kept going smaller and smaller until it was a small knob on the drawer I had her touching to ‘close it’. Sometimes making this change in the ‘touch it’ object can confuse a dog. You may have to attach the smaller object inside the larger one then remove it later.
Among all this, I also used my target stick to reinforce ‘touch it’. Whatever I pointed to, I asked her to ‘touch it’. She is very good at this, and quickly learned it is the object, not the stick, she is to touch. Others have used laser pointers for ‘touch it’ as well as discrimination between objects. This didn’t work for Joella since she sees the dot as a toy and wants to bring me the dot, not the object. Sigh.
Now to really work her brain. I tied a cloth belt to the handle of the refrigerator, making a large knot. We worked on touching that knot. We moved on to ‘getting’ the knot and putting it in my hand, switching the command to ‘take it’. From there, I asked her to give it to me, slowly moving further and further away so that she was having to pull the belt and the door. At this point, the command became ‘pull it’.
Finally I pulled too, and the door opened. Viola! Cheese! Closed the door, asked her to give it to me, she pulled, I helped. Cheese again. On the third time, I didn’t help but she’d already figured it out. She now knows just the angle it takes to pull the door open. I change the command to ‘open it’ and she does. She has only opened the refrigerator on her own (without being asked) twice. Both times I shut the refrigerator and didn’t acknowledge it at all. No cheese, no ‘no’.
After each practice session now and after each task, she knows that inside that big thing is her reward. Sometimes, however, her knowing that is a pain. The washer is in the kitchen. I scoot the hamper into the kitchen and she hands me the clothes so I can put them in (another good time to reinforce ‘the other/next one’). Quite often, after each second article of clothing, she will look at the refrigerator, thinking she’s done enough to earn some cheese. Several times she has gone to the door and looked at me, demanding she be allowed to open it. I don’t though, not wanting to reinforce that behavior. She comes back and begins to literally throw the clothes at me!
We have worked on ‘touch it’ away from home, especially on those big door buttons. Most of them are beyond Her Highness’ reach and she generally will not get up on her hind legs without support to the front. I have, then, had her put her front feet on my lap and reach with her nose to touch the button. There are ways to work around most problems or obstacles such as this.
I’ve had her pull other doors shut but on the whole, she won’t do it. When she was young and on one of our first outings out, a door hit her from behind and she’s never forgotten it. She’s not terrified of them, she just doesn’t like them nor trust them. Getting her to pull one closed is still a difficult thing.
Since Joella is not food motivated except for cheese, teaching her to open the refrigerator door was safe to do. If your dog will eat any and everything in there, you might want to reconsider this task. I know of several people who have small ‘dorm’ refrigerators where they keep their drinks and other things they need the dog to retrieve for them. If you need such a thing as a task, you may want to consider getting one and teaching the dog to open that one instead.
Clickers are becoming quite popular and can be found at most pet supply stores. They are also available online at places such as sitstay.com. www.sitstay.com/store/equip/eq4.shtml.
The same page also has the target stick.
Note: This article has been changed from its original version which can be found in the Issue 12 .pdf file.
Originally published in EDSToday newsletter issue #12.
Other related articles can be found on the Published Works page of this site.